Wrote this piece on request for a Malaysian newspaper but they had to hold it for a day and then decided not to run it because relations between Malaysia and Indonesia have “cooled down”. Could never figure out what the roles of the media should be in such times but it’s their right. So, since I had gone to all that trouble of writing it I might as well post it here:
What is Malaysia to make of the roadblock in Jakarta yesterday in which some Indonesian ultra nationalists,
armed with sharpened bamboo poles, set up a roadblock in Jakarta to look for Malaysians?
On one level, nothing much. Demonstrations like these pop up and disappear in Jakarta all the time without anyone being the wiser who actually organized them, why, what they got out of it or why they stopped as mysteriously as they started. Often such demonstrations have to do with a group wanting to extort money, vent their frustrations or prove a point.
On another level, Malaysia needs to come clean about its concept of what’s Malay because it clashes with the Indonesian concept. Failure to address this would result in future spats and embarrassments as Indonesia accuses Malaysia of “stealing” its songs, culture and traditions.
To Indonesians, Malay is an ethnic group that exists in Riau and a small part of Kalimantan. They are an ethnic group, not a race and things “belonging” to the Melayu are dances such as the Tarian Lilin…… The Melayu, in Indonesia, is no different than other ethnic groups like Sundanese, Batak, Balinese, Dayak, Javanese and Chinese. Each have their own ethnic identity but they are all Indonesians and are equal before the Constitution and the law.
In Malaysia, however, the word Malay is understood differently. Under its Constitution, Malay is defined as a race, or to be more precise an ethno-religious group since you have to be Muslim to be Malay. Under this definition virtually anyone that’s not Chinese, Indian or of any other distinctive ethnic grouping in Malaysia is considered Malay, if they are Muslim.
Hence you have people who are distinctively Indian Muslims (example, Mahathir), Arab Muslims (Hussein Onn) and Sulawesi Muslims (Najib) being considered Malay. From there it is only a small leap of logic to claim that any culture belonging to them also belongs to the Malay race, and hence to Malaysia.
This is not necessarily wrong but it infuriates in the Indonesians, most of whom have been educated from school to recognize and appreciate the diverse cultures that make up the nation of Indonesia. Indonesians are understandably proud of this culture and the nation’s diversity and therefore irritated if they perceive someone as claiming any of that as their own.
Irritation, however, doesn’t explain the anger and even malice that has marked some Indonesian anti-Malaysia actions of late, such as the cyber attack of Malaysian websites on the Malaysian Independence Day on August 31, and the “sweeping” roadblock looking for Malaysians in Jakarta yesterday.
What may help explain these actions, however, is the saying that the basis of all enmity is a feeling of being slighted. Where many Indonesians are concerned they have been constantly slighted as they feel that Malaysia constantly looks down on them as a nation of domestic helpers, construction workers and criminal elements. They feel even more slighted when they read reports of domestic helpers being abused by their Malaysian employers.
To make things worse, their feelings of being slighted are being compounded with a sense of helplessness, largely because their own government seems incapable of looking after their rights and interests.
Thus when Indonesia lost Sipadan to Malaysia, the anger was directed at Malaysia but the nagging feeling was that Indonesia could have done better to fortify its claims and to provide a better argument at The Hague.
Each time a maid was physically abused by a Malaysian employer, the anger was ostensibly directed at Malaysia but lurking at the back of their minds was the nonchalance and impotence of their own government to protect their rights of its workers abroad.
When Malaysia used songs such as Rasa Sayange and dances such as the Reog Ponorogo and the Pendet dance to promote Malaysian tourism, Indonesians railed against Malaysia but deep down they decry their own government’s inability to promote, market and “own” their own culture more.
What then should Malaysia do to diffuse such situations in the future? There is nothing it can do with how the Indonesian Government does or doesn’t do to take care of the rights of its citizens and to market and protect its cultural heritage, but it can do something about how Malaysians relate to Indonesians.
The first is an honest examination of what constitutes Malaysian and Malay culture. But this would require delving into the very heart of Malayness and it would take a minor miracle of political will to make this happen.
The second is to educate Malaysians, starting from the Tourism Ministry up, the traditions and cultures of its neighbors. If Malaysian producers were more educated in this respect they would not have made the mistake of thinking that the distinctively Balinese Pendet dance was Malaysian.
The third is to realize that the Indonesians think, with some justification, that Malaysians are arrogant and look down on Indonesians. The government from ministers down to those in the front line of interfacing with Indonesians such as immigration officers, need cultural sensitivity training.
They need to be educated that their exposure of Indonesians has largely been conditioned by exposure to the lower strata of society, that Indonesians like people everywhere, have their middle and upper classes that are no different from themselves.
It is only when Malaysia is able to do all these that the friction points with its neighbor will be reduced. Anything less and we’ll be bickering until the cows come home.